Monday, February 11, 2013

Descriptive Writing

A good friend and talented writer called me last night to offer feedback on my recently published short story, The Buckner Brothers. In summary, she said she liked the story and its unpredictability. She said the pace was good, as was the rhythm. She particularly appreciated the physical descriptions of the main characters and the way in which their psychoses evolved.
Then she lowered the boom; she said she had a hard time visualizing where the action was taking place. The writing lacked a vivid setting. She wanted more ambience, more environment. 

So what did I do? Like any self-respecting writer, I drank wine through a straw went back and reread the story she was referring to. Then I studied my WIP. Yep. She’s dead nuts right.

As I looked at my writing through this new lense, it was clear - I do spill more ink on people than I do on places. Interesting. I went looking for advice from my guru, Stephen King. In his book about writing, aptly titled On Writing, King differentiates between two kinds of descriptive writing: the physical description of characters and the description of “locale and texture” (his words).

I’m feeling halfway okay until I read further. King says descriptions of “locale and texture” are more important to good writing than are descriptions of people and characters. 

Wouldn't you know it.

Digging for details, I landed on this nugget:
Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Over-description buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium.  

Easy for you to do, Mr. King. But what about fledgling indi authors?
Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing. 

Alrighty then, back to the doing. I just hope I don't over-describe the little girl's bedroom in the story I'm writing now. If I do, I trust that my excellent and talented friends will shove me in the right direction. Thanks, Cyndi.


  1. I struggle with descriptive writing, too! I tend to fall on both sides of it, too--there's either too much (by paragraphs) or barely any mention of the characters' surroundings at all.

  2. How wonderful that you have a friend who doesnt just tell you what you want to hear. We cant grow and learn from that. But through honest, authentic feedback and constructive criticism is where one has the opportunity to move toward greatness. Keep Listening and Trusting the Process Lang....BA

  3. the key is the apt description -- the perfect note, which can be simple as with Raymond Carver. Or complex as with Updike. But either way, they were both writers who chose their descriptive words carefully. Drink the wine (thru a straw, been there, done that) and then look at it with fresh eyes:)

  4. I am reading all the Sue Grafton a-z novels. I love her stories, but I feel like she goes into too much detail on the surroundings and minutiae. I don't need to know that much to get the gist of the story. Her books are so long, and I literally skim over a lot of what I consider the unnecessary descriptions. I like to know the settings, but I don't need to know how many needles fell on the table. Hope you get my drift.

  5. It's certainly a hard balance. I'm guilty of too much and too little. Usually I consume books in large chunks, taking mere hours to read to the end. But I am working on a novel right now that just seems to go on and on and ON with detail after detail. It's daunting to try to make sense of it all, and I've been stuck reading this novel for the last couple months. I don't like to give up on a book because it may surprise you in the end. However, I've been tempted on quite a few occasions to simply give up!

  6. I find it difficult to describe places too. People are easier and precisely because of that, there's a tendency to overdo things. This was very informative and puts me to task once again with my own writing. Thanks!

  7. One of my favorite writing books... just keep writing!


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